UNION LEADERS SPEAK
The Inconvenient Truth About ‘Waiting for Superman’
Recently, the education conversation has been dominated by praise for and critiques of “Waiting for Superman,” the new documentary on American education. I usually do not become involved in these public discussions on schools, which happen often now that education has become a “hot” topic for celebrities and billionaires. But the current hullabaloo over this movie caused me to reflect that the charges in this movie could not be left unaddressed.
For those educators who haven’t seen the movie, I can sum up the plot easily enough: Unions are to blame for most problems in the schools and charter schools are the solution to all the ills. Poverty, drugs, absentee parents and other inner-city issues with which we’re all familiar, well, as the kids say, “Not so much.”
Such a facile, silly charge shouldn’t even merit a response, but unfortunately, many non-educators, who haven’t set foot in a school in years, are taking the movie’s indictment as gospel.
I am a firm believer in pointing out problems that need to be addressed. No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top helped raise awareness that many school systems were failing, among others, English Language Learners and special-education students. “Waiting for Superman” is successful in that it has helped focus the general population on problems within school systems, which most of us, I think, believe is a good thing. After years of inattention, the spotlight is welcome.
But the problem is this: The movie is being seen by people who don’t understand the subtext of the conversation, or how complicated education is. The movie’s message is easy: Public schools are sub-par. Teachers are awful. Charter schools are the salvation. Easy charges, easy solutions.
Well, I do hope that this conversation continues, but I certainly want it to become deeper than the one “Waiting for Superman” is generating. The movie panders to people’s emotions. It’s oversimplified and unbalanced. We must broaden the conversation without condemning all of our public schools. Many public schools nationwide, contrary to popular myth, are flourishing. Many public schools outperform the local charter schools despite the fact the public schools must admit all children, which isn’t the case for all charter schools.
The movie glosses over facts that would complicate its message. For example, it holds up Finland as a nation with a model school system. Not once, does the movie mention that teachers are unionized in that country. The movie tips its hat to the successful Green Dot charter schools without once mentioning that they, too, are unionized.
The movie also fails to point out the disparity of resources. The Harlem Children’s Zone is practically anointed the messiah of school systems, yet we never learn about the Wall Street millions behind the scenes, money that is unavailable to our public schools. This inequity can’t be brushed away, and yet, it was.
Good ideas are welcome, but let’s stop perpetuating the notion that no one before the present-day group of reform-minded educators ever noticed we have issues reaching our most at-risk children and that only they have the solution. It simply is not so. #
Anita Gomez-Palacio is the executive director of operations at the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators.